Government & Politics

New Jackson County jail could cost $270 million and nearly double current capacity

Jackson County Detention Center
Jackson County Detention Center File photo

Jackson County will by 2040 need a jail that can hold nearly twice as many inmates as it does now absent any changes in incarceration rates, according to a new study released late Friday afternoon.

The 53-page document authored by two consulting firms was paired with a slimmer companion report from a citizens’ committee appointed by County Executive Frank White a year ago. That report from the Jackson County Jail Task Force agreed with the consultants that a bigger jail is needed to replace the current one, which previous reports have called unsafe and broken down.

Both also stressed the need for reforms that would reduce what members called “unnecessary incarceration” of low-level offenders and the need to look at racial and ethnic disparities within the jail population.

White said he agreed with the need to replace the 36-year-old the Jackson County Detention Center with a more efficient facility, but is not sure how big it should be.

“Both reports make it very clear that if no changes are made to our criminal justice system, Jackson County will continue to contend with deeply rooted issues, such as increasing incarceration rates, disproportionate number of black men in jail and rising operational costs,” White said in a prepared statement.

County government, however, has no control over criminal justice policies, which are set by state government, prosecutors and the courts. It does have responsibility for maintaining and operating a facility to house prisoners awaiting trial on state charges, and Jackson County’s track record has been awful in recent years.

The county has been sued repeatedly by inmates complaining about squalid conditions and because they were the victims of violence due to lax security. In the past two years alone, taxpayers have spent more than $900,000 settling just four of those lawsuits. One was filed by an inmate who was beaten by four guards, who are now awaiting trial on federal charges. Another was filed by a woman who was sexually assaulted by another inmate.

Six reports outlining the jail’s physical and operational shortcomings have been released since 2015, when signs of trouble first appeared when former County Executive Mike Sanders announced an FBI investigation into the abusive treatment of prisoners.

The reports released Friday raise concerns to brought up in a grand jury investigation last year and three other reports by consultants and an earlier citizens’ task force.

County Legislator Dan Tarwater said Friday that he had not read the reports, which were kept under seal until around 4 p.m., but thinks they will likely jump-start the discussion of building a new jail that began almost three years ago.

The consulting team led by the firms Shive-Hattery and HDR estimate that a new jail would need to house up to 1,800 inmates, but no fewer than 1,300, and cost between $230 million and $270 million.

Both would be one or two stories and require fewer employees on average to operate than the currently overcrowded detention center in downtown Kansas City.

That complex has three parts. The largest is the eight-story tower opened in the early 1980s, which has 760 beds, but whose functional capacity is closer to 549 beds. On occasion, however, as many as 977 people have been jammed into it, with some of them sleeping on cots in the gym.

Attached to the tower is the 132-bed jail annex, which is on three levels and was built in the 1990s to meet the demands of a federal judge who deemed the tower overcrowded. Alongside both is a five-level art deco structure built in the 1930s called the Regional Correctional Center, which under a contract with Kansas City houses prisoners being held on municipal charges. It holds 153.

Last fall, county legislators reversed tax levy rollbacks installed during the last recession. Their stated intent was to use the nearly $20 million in additional annual revenue to help fund a new jail.

That will be part of the discussion when the legislature begins its 2019 budget hearings on Monday.

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738

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